, Volume 127, Issue 2–3, pp 411–426 | Cite as

Drought and saltwater incursion synergistically reduce dissolved organic carbon export from coastal freshwater wetlands

  • Marcelo ArdónEmail author
  • Ashley M. Helton
  • Emily S. Bernhardt


The hydrologic transport of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) represents both a primary energetic loss from and a critical energetic link between ecosystems. Coastal freshwater wetlands serve as a primary source of DOC to estuaries; historically the magnitude and timing of DOC transfers has been driven by water movement. Extensive agricultural development throughout the coastal plain of the southeastern US has hydrologically connected much of the landscape via canals to facilitate drainage. The resulting large-scale loss of topographic relief and reduced mean elevation is interacting with increasingly frequent and severe droughts to facilitate the landward movement of seawater through the highly connected artificial drainage networks. The resulting changes in hydrologic regime and salinity are each expected to reduce DOC export from coastal freshwater wetlands, yet their individual and combined impacts are not well understood. Here we show that repeated saltwater incursion during late summer droughts substantially decreased DOC concentrations in surface water (from ~40 to ~18 mg/L) from a mature and a restored forested wetland in the coastal plain of North Carolina, USA. These declines in DOC concentration reduced annual export of DOC to the estuary by 70 % and dampened storm fluxes by 76 %. We used a long-term experiment with intact soil columns to measure the independent and combined effects of drought, salinity, and sulfate loading as potential drivers of the large changes in DOC concentration. We found that soil drying and salinization each reduced DOC similarly (20 % reduction by drought alone, 29 % by salinization) and their combined effect was additive (49 % reduction in salinization + drought treatments). Our results demonstrate that, well in advance of significant sea-level rise, drought and relatively low levels of saltwater incursion (<6 ppt) are already significantly altering the timing and magnitude of dissolved organic carbon flux between coastal forested wetlands and downstream estuaries.


Climate change Saltwater intrusion DOC export Drought Forested wetlands Storms Sea-level rise 



We thank M. Burke-Scoll, K. Ballance, and A. Fedders for help in the field and the lab. We thank D. Kong for working on the data for Fig. 5. We thank Drs. Mark Brush, Scott Neubauer and one anonymous reviewer for helpful comments that improved the manuscript. This research was supported by GDSMB private gift in support of basic research, a grant to E.S. Bernhardt from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science (BER) through the Coastal Center of the National Institute for Climatic Change Research at Tulane University, and NSF DEB-1021149. M. Ardón was supported by NSF DBI-0805576, DBI-1216512, DEB-1452886, and EF-1426892.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marcelo Ardón
    • 1
    Email author
  • Ashley M. Helton
    • 2
  • Emily S. Bernhardt
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of BiologyEast Carolina UniversityGreenvilleUSA
  2. 2.Department of Natural Resources and the Environment & Center for Environmental Sciences and EngineeringUniversity of ConnecticutStorrsUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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